UK GDP growth is services driven these days as manufacturing is in a depression

by Shaun Richards

Today brings the UK into focus as we find out how it’s economy performed at the end of 2019. A cloudy perspective has been provided by the Euro area which showed 0.1% in the final quarter but sadly since then the news for it has deteriorated as the various production figures have been released.

Germany

WIESBADEN – In December 2019, production in industry was down by 3.5% on the previous month on a price, seasonally and calendar adjusted basis according to provisional data of the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis)

France

In December 2019, output decreased in the manufacturing industry (−2.6%, after −0.4%), as well as in the whole industry (−2.8%, after 0.0%).

Italy

In December 2019 the seasonally adjusted industrial production index decreased by 2.7% compared with the previous month. The change of the average of the last three months with respect to the previous three months was -1.4%.

Spain

The monthly variation of the Industrial Production Index stands at -1.4%, after adjusting for seasonal and calendar effects.

These were disappointing and were worse than the numbers likely to have gone into the GDP data. Most significant was Germany due both to the size of its production sector and also the size of the contraction. France caught people out as it had been doing better as had Spain. Italy sadly seems to be in quite a mire as its GDP was already 0.3% on the quarter. So the background is poor for the UK.

Today’s Data

With the background being not especially auspicious then this was okay in the circumstances.

UK gross domestic product (GDP) in volume terms was flat in Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2019, following revised growth of 0.5% in Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 2019.

In fact if we switch to the annual numbers then they were better than the Euro area.

When compared with the same quarter a year ago, UK GDP increased by 1.1% to Quarter 4 2019; down from a revised 1.2% in the previous period.

Marginal numbers because it grew by 1% on the same basis but we do learn a several things. Firstly for all the hype and debate the performances are within the margin of error. Next that UK economic growth in the two halves of 2019 looks the same. Finally that as I have argued all along the monthly GDP numbers are not a good idea as they are too erratic and prone to revisions which change them substantially.

Monthly gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 0.3% in December 2019, driven by growth in services. This followed a fall of 0.3% in November 2019.

Does anybody really believe that sequence is useful? I may find support from some of the economics organisations I have been debating with on twitter as their forecasts for today were based on the November number and were thus wrong-footed. Although of course they may have to deal with some calls from their clients first.

If we look into the detail we see that in fact our economic performance over the past two years has in fact been much more consistent than we might otherwise think.

GDP was estimated to have increased by 1.4% between 2018 and 2019 slightly above the 1.3% growth seen between 2017 and 2018.

Growth, just not very much of it or if we note the Bank of England “speed-limit” then if we allow for margins of error we could call it flat-out.

Switch to Services

Our long-running theme which is the opposite of the “rebalancing” of the now Baron King of Lothbury and the “march of the makers” of former Chancellor Osborne was right yet again.

Growth in the service sector slowed to 0.1% in Quarter 4 2019, while production output fell 0.8%.

So whilst there was not much growth it still pulled away from a contracting production sector and if we look further we see that the UK joined the Euro area in having a poor 2019 for manufacturing and production.

Production output fell by 1.3% in the 12 months to December 2019, compared with the 12 months to December 2018; this is the largest annual fall since 2012 and was led by manufacturing output, which fell by 1.5%.

Meanwhile a part of the services sector we have consistently noted did well again.

The services sector grew by 0.3% in the month of December 2019 after contracting by 0.4% in November 2019. The information and communication sector was the biggest positive contributor on the month, driven by motion pictures, with a number of blockbuster films being released in December (PDF, 192.50KB).

That is something literally under my nose as Battersea Park is used regularly for this.

Balance of Payments

There is an irony here because if we look internationally they do not balance as there are examples of countries both thinking they have a surplus with each other.

The numbers such as they are had shown signs of improvement but like the GDP data actually had a case of groundhog day.

The total trade deficit narrowed by £0.5 billion to £29.3 billion in 2019, with a £9.7 billion narrowing of the trade in goods deficit, largely offset by a £9.2 billion narrowing of the trade in services surplus.

The latter bit reminds me that I wrote to the Bean Commission about the fact that our knowledge of services trade is really poor and today’s release confirms this is still the case.

The trade in services surplus narrowed £5.1 billion in Quarter 4 2019 largely because of the inclusion of GDP balancing adjustments.

Let me explain this as it is different to what people are taught at school and in universities where net exports are part of GDP. The output version of GDP counts it up and then drives the expenditure version which includes trade and if they differ it is the trade and in particular services numbers in this instance which get altered. If they had more confidence in them they would not do that. This way round they become not far off useless in my opinion.

 

Gold and UK GDP

In the UK statisticians have a problem due to this.

For many countries the effect of gold on their trade figures is small, but the prominence of the industry in London means it can have a sizeable impact on the UK’s trade figures.

Rather confusingly the international standard means it affects trade but not GDP.

Firstly, imports and exports of gold are GDP-neutral. Most exports add to GDP, but not gold. This is because the sale of gold is counted as negative investment, and vice versa for imports and the purchase of gold. So, the trade in gold creates further problems for measuring investment.

So as well as the usual trade figures they intend to produce ones ignoring its impact.

Because a relatively small numbers of firms are involved in the gold trade, publishing detailed figures could be disclosive. However, within those limitations, we are now able to show our headline import and export figures with gold excluded.

A good idea I think as the impact on the UK economy is the various fees received not the movement of the gold itself, especially it we did not own it in the first place.

Oh and my influence seems to have even reached the Deputy National Statistician.

Gold, in addition to being a hit song by Spandau Ballet, is widely used as a store of value.

Comment

For all the hot air and hype generated the UK economic performance has in the past two years been remarkably similar. Actually the same is pretty much true of comparing us with the Euro area.As it happens 2020 looks as though we are now doing better but that has ebbed and flowed before.

Looking beneath this shows we continue to switch towards services and as I note the downwards revisions to net services trade I am left wondering two things. What if the services surveys are right and the switch to it is even larger than we are being told? Also it displays a lack of confidence in the services surveys to revise the numbers down on this scale. We know less than sometimes we think we do.

Meanwhile on a much less optimistic theme manufacturing has been in a decade long depression.

Manufacturing output in the UK remained 4.5% lower in Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2019 than the pre-downturn peak in Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2008.